Public responsibility for higher education and research in Europe

BERGAN, Sjur (2010)

In this article, Sjur Bergan, Head of the Department of Higher Education and History Teaching of the Council of Europe, reflects upon the notion of public responsibility in the field of higher education and research. 


Twice, European ministers responsible for higher education have declared that higher education is a public good and a public responsibility (Bologna Process 2001, 2003). Space is too limited to discuss the degree to which higher education may be a public or a private good, so this article will focus on the more operational part of the statement: higher education as a public responsibility.
Since Ministers made their statement twice in the course of two years, they could of course be stating the obvious.    A more reasonable interpretation, however, is that they were expressing concern that a feature of European higher education that had been taken for granted in the past could not be so in the future.  This interpretation nevertheless leaves the question of whether the ministers believed that the problem could be solved by the simple use of declarative force, since they did not use the opportunity to launch a debate of what the public responsibility could be and how it should be implemented.
That, then, is our point here: what is the public responsibility for higher education in modern, complex societies with a diverse field of actors and how can it be made an abiding reality of European higher education?  The article draws on work undertaken by the Council of Europe (Weber and Bergan 2005; Council of Europe 2007) as well as on further reflection since then (Bergan 2009).
Whose responsibility for what?
Before answering the “what” question, it may be useful to clarify who exercises public responsibility.  The traditional Europe reply is “the State”, but that is an inadequate answer. As I see it, public responsibility is exercised by public authorities, which may be found at all levels - national, regional and local – depending on the country. The public authority may be a national or regional ministry but it may also be a higher education council, a funding authority or a specialized agency.
A second question is “responsibility for what?”. While today’s public debate in Europe could give the impression that education has one purpose only – strengthen the economy – public authorities have responsibility for the full range of purposes of higher education.  There may be some debate about the details but broadly there seems to be agreement that higher education serves four major purposes, which are all of equal importance (Bergan 2005, Bologna Process 2007 and 2009, Council of Europe 2007):
- preparation for the labor market;
- preparation for life as active citizens in democratic societies;
- personal development;
- the development and maintenance of a broad, advanced knowledge base.
Basic principles
The third question, then, is “what responsibility?”. Traditionally, in Europe public responsibility has been seen not only as an absolute value – a judgment with which I would tend to agree – but also as a phenomenon that does not require much nuanced reflection or implementation.  However, in a society with highly diverse actors, in which  it is increasingly difficult for political authorities to make a decision and have it accepted, and in which legal, political and economic space to a large part no longer coincide, we need to reexamine the various facets of public authorities.
One size no longer fits all. Rather, the degree of public responsibility must be assessed in relation to different areas, so that public authorities have:
- exclusive responsibility for the framework within which higher education and research is conducted;
- leading responsibility for ensuring effective equal opportunities to higher education for all citizens, as well as ensuring that basic research remains a public good;
- substantial responsibility for financing higher education and research, the provision of higher education and research, as well as for stimulating and facilitating financing and provision by other sources within the framework developed by public authorities (Council of Europe 2007).
It may be easier to outline basic principles than to provide anything like a full description of the consequences of these principles, all the more so in a brief article.  Nevertheless, even a cursory exploration of some implications will help illustrate the principles and hopefully also stimulate further reflection.
The sole responsibility of public authorities for the framework of higher education implies not only the obvious point that legislation is a responsibility that cannot be transferred to other actors but also that public authorities have the responsibility for establishing provisions such as the degree system or the national qualifications framework and arrangements for external quality assurance.  In this context, it should be borne in mind that higher education is affected by general legislation such as safety regulations for laboratories, rules of public accounting and labor legislation as much as it is by specific higher education legislation.
These responsibilities may be exercised directly by the Ministry responsible for higher education but they may also be given to specialized agencies such as a qualifications authority or a quality assurance agency. In fact, in the latter case, it would be unusual for the Ministry to have operational responsibility because this would endanger the independence of quality assurance or accreditation decisions.  Authority in this area may even be exercised through a non-public body, as is the case for the UK quality assurance agency, but it remains a public responsibility because the body in question operates on a public mandate that may be withdrawn by the relevant public authority.  Public responsibility may therefore be exercised through a non-public body but it cannot be abdicated and should the body in question perform badly, the responsibility ultimately remains with the public authority. Public authorities are also responsible for deciding what institutions and programs belong to its higher education system (Council of Europe/UNESCO 1997, art. VIII.1), and today it is difficult to imagine that this could be done without reference to quality assurance.
Ensuring equal opportunities to higher education is also a crucial public responsibility, and this may bet he point at which the statement about public responsibility comes the closest to interacting with that on public good.  Public authorities must assume responsibility for ensuring that everyone has the possibility to complete quality education in accordance with their ability and interests.  This does not mean simply the absence of discrimination in access to higher education. Rather, it implies that public authorities must implement policies at all levels of education that enable all students to develop their talent regardless of their background. Judging future potential is more challenging than judging past achievement, but it is essential.  Not allowing everyone to develop their full potential is unjust toward the individual concerned and it also prevents a society from making full use of the potential contributions of its citizens.
A third example would be funding. Few universities can fulfill their ambition through ordinary public funding alone, and most seek external contributions through public project funding or a variety of private sources.  Privately financed higher education is also a reality in many countries. In my view, the essential issue is not ownership but the degree to which private funding is provided within a framework and under regulations established by public authorities.  I would see private funding as positive if it helps increase the higher education and research capacity of a system while undergoing quality assurance, providing qualifications in accordance with the qualifications framework of that system, practicing equal access policies and so forth. It would be negative if, for example, it provided education of insufficient quality, showed no concern for the social responsibility of higher education or provided qualifications that were too far removed from the national qualifications framework to be readily recognized without informing prospective students very clearly that this would be the case.
Further challenges
If we want public responsibility for higher education to be a defining feature of the European Higher Education Area, further reflection is needed on the issue.  I believe the work undertaken by the Council of Europe so far is a good start but I have no illusion about having provided all possible answers. As societies develop, so much our conception of the public responsibility for higher education, albeit without compromising on the principle of equal opportunities. Maybe the unchanging principle of public responsibility may be summarized as providing the answer to what I have come to refer to as Eugenio Tironi’s two crucial questions. He said: the answer to the question “what kind of education do we need?” is to be found in the answer to another question: “what kind of society do we want?” (Tironi 2005).  Answering these two questions cannot be but a public responsibility, in the broadest sense of the term.

Bergan, Sjur (2005): ““Higher Education as a “Public Good and a Public Responsibility”: What Does it Mean?”, in Weber and Bergan (eds.): The Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research, pp. 13 - 28
Bergan, Sjur (2009): “Public Responsibility and Institutional Autonomy : Where is the Balance?” in Past, Present and Future of the Magna Charta Universitatum.  Celebrations of the XX Anniversary of the Magna Charta Universitatum (Bologna: Bononia University Press), pp. 99 - 125
Bologna Process (2001): “Towards the European Higher Education Area” Communiqué of the meeting of European Ministers in charge of Higher Education in Prague”
Bologna Process (2003): “Realising the European Higher Education Area” Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education in Berlin
Bologna Process (2007): “London Communiqué. Towards the European Higher Education Area: responding to challenges in a globalised world”
Bologna Process (2009): “The Bologna Process 2020 - The European Higher Education Area in the new decade” Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve
Council of Europe (2007): Recommendation Rec (2007) 6 by the Committee of Ministers to member states on the public responsibility for higher education and research
Council of Europe/UNESCO (1997): Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the Europe Region (Lisboa Recognition Convention)
Tironi, Eugenio: El sueño chileno. Comunidad, familia y nación en el Bicentenario (Santiago de Chile: Taurus)
Weber, Luc and Sjur Bergan (eds.) (2005): The Public Responsibility for Higher Education and Research (Strasbourg  Council of Europe Publishing. Council of Europe Higher Education Series, volume 2)

About the author

Sjur Bergan is Head of the Department of Higher Education and History Teaching of the Council of Europe. He represents the Council of Europe on the Bologna Follow Up Group and Board and chairs the Working Group on Qualifications Frameworks. He has been Secretary to the Council’s Higher Education and Research Committee (CDESR) and he was a member of the editorial group for the Council’s White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue. Sjur Bergan is series editor of the Council of Europe Higher Education Series and the author of Qualifications: Introduction to a Concept as well as of numerous articles.

Monday, March 22, 2010


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